We made this stop last year, when we also camped at Jonathon Dickinson State Park. We just didn’t have enough time back then to take in some important sights and other activities. This year we would make up for that . . . and we didn’t waste any time.
The Flagler Museum, a National Historic Landmark, located in Palm Beach, was Henry Flagler’s winter home, a mansion he named Whitehall. We had already learned a lot about Henry from our trip through the Florida Keys last winter. Henry Flagler pretty much single-handedly opened up Florida to travelers in the first decade of the 20th century. After coming to St. Augustine on the advice of his first wife’s doctors who advised that the temperate winter climate might be of help to her chronic health issues, he couldn’t help but notice the lack of services as well as the great potential the state of Florida offered. As a founding partner of Standard Oil, Flagler had amassed a sizeable bank account. By the 1890s he was ready to initiate a second career developing resorts, industries, and communities all along Florida’s East Coast. He began by creating the Florida East Coast Railway, the FEC, which still operates today. He went on to develop a series of luxury hotels along the Atlantic coast as well as the development of two million acres of land, establishing agriculture and tourism as the foundation of Florida’s economy in the past 100 years. When Henry Flagler began his work in Florida it was arguably the poorest state in the Union. Today, thanks in large part to Flagler, Florida has the fourth largest economy in our country, one that is larger than 90% of the world’s nations.
In 1900 Flagler began the construction of Whitehall. It would be a wedding present for his third wife, Mary Lily, which they used as a winter retreat. It would be the personification of a Gilded Age mansion, putting Palm Beach on the map for the wealthiest socialites of the day. Employing the same architects responsible for his Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the structure was built in the Beaux Arts style, made popular at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. Having more than 75 rooms, it encompassed 100,000 square feet. It cost $2,500,000 to build, with another $1,500,000 spent on designing and decorating the interior spaces. And those figures were valued in the currency of the day. It took a mere 18 months to complete, which we found amazing as we noted the extreme detailed work and craftsmanship put in to each room. With the main rooms on the first floor being built around a central courtyard, the mansion was constructed with all the modern conveniences of the day—electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating and telephones. Typical of other Gilded Age businessmen, Henry Flagler had grown phenomenally wealthy due in part to the development of new technologies, and like other entrepreneurs of the day believed that building grand estates was part of their obligation to symbolize America’s new status as the most highly evolved civilization in history. He obviously succeeded with that goal.
Whitehall is amazing by most anyone’s standards. From the moment we entered into the Grand Entrance Hall, we were appropriately gawking. Encompassing 5,000 wuare feet, Henry purposely intended this to be the largest and grandest of any room in a Gilded Age private home. Forming an open-squared layout, there is a room on both far ends of this hall–his Library to the left, the Drawing Room on the right. Other rooms connect to each of these, coming together at the back of the courtyard by meeting with the Grand Ballroom.
Words really can’t do justice in describing this home. Perhaps the photos we took while touring it can give you an idea of the atmosphere it portrays. We were impressed to the highest degree and sufficiently overwhelmed. Henry and Mary Lily occupied Whitehall for only January and February of each year, from 1902 through 1913. An article written for the New York Herald in March of 1902 described it as “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” I respectively comment that the Biltmore or Hearst Castle might compete for that title; nevertheless, Whitehall does command one’s attention.
Needless to say, seeing it in person is an entirely different experience from just perusing these photos. It is something much better to be seen in person.
The Pavilion, completed in 2005, was built in the style of a 19th century Beaux Arts railway palace. It was constructed specifically to hold Henry’s private railcar, No. 91. Built in 1886 for Flagler’s personal use, it was acquired by the Museum in 1959. After much research, the car was restored to its original appearance.
A continuation of our day at Palm Beach continues with the following blog . . . we hope you follow along!
Chris and Melinda